Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email [email protected] or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Our oldest is going to be starting kindergarten this August. He’s gone to preschool in the same school district for the last 3 years, and school has always started around August 20. We just found out that the first day this year will be August 11! The problem is… we only have one family trip planned this summer (and really for the rest of the year, due to a new baby coming in the fall), and it is supposed to be August 7 – 14. We’ve unfortunately been hyping up this trip, and he is really excited about going. So… what should I do? Have him miss the first three days? Or go and come home early so they can start school? I’m leaning towards the latter because he’ll be going to a new school with new kids… but is the first week super important?

—Meaningful or Meaningless Absence?

Dear Absence,

You should absolutely, 100 percent, without a doubt let him miss the first few days of school. He will be fine. Over a year that has taken so much from so many, an opportunity to be out in the world again, especially with a new baby on the way, will be much more impactful for your son than the first couple of days of school.

The first week is not super important, it’s mostly teaching kids how to walk in a straight line and learning classroom routines. I wouldn’t worry about him missing any class bonding either. Kids come and go frequently during the first couple of weeks, so much so that we usually don’t even have a finalized class list until early October. Having your son start on the following Monday will not impact him in the slightest. If you are still concerned, you could find an opportunity for your son to meet his teacher a little early, maybe via Zoom. This way there’s one familiar face in the room when he starts on Monday. Take this time and enjoy your family. After a year like this, your son definitely deserves it.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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My 3-year-old refuses to use the potty at her preschool. She is very stubborn, and it has turned into a power struggle. The more we push, the more she refuses. She is capable of holding it ALL DAY, including at nap time, and will come home moaning in pain until she can use the potty at home. She has accidents at school, so she’s inconsistent. For context, she spent 11 months at home with a nanny, due to COVID and has been back at preschool for about 2 months. She had a few weeks where she used the potty but it’s been sporadic. Should I be concerned, or will she figure it out eventually? What should I do to convince her to use the potty at school? I’ve tried timers, stickers, peer pressure …she can smell a trick a mile away!

—Holding it All In

Dear Holding,

I have a few questions that I would recommend you ask the preschool. First, what is the bathroom like there? Many kids are afraid of the automatic flush to the point that they can’t use a toilet that has one, or if she has some gravitational insecurity (that is, extreme reactions to situations that challenge her balance or her visual-perception), a tall toilet for which she needs a stepstool could cause anxiety. Compare that against toilets you have seen her use, especially public toilets, if there are any. If the issue is the automatic flush, that’s something you can solve using a post-it over the sensor, and if it’s gravitational insecurity, she may just need an adult to help her work through that. She may also need to go when there are fewer other kids, or bring a toy with her, etc. Sometimes, young kids who are relatively new to the toilet have these hang-ups we don’t see until we see them.

Second, what is bathroom time like at preschool? When I taught preschool, toilet time was on our visual schedule. It was baked into our day, twice a day at least. When I had specific students potty-training, we did three. Even our diapered kids went when it was potty time. There were a handful of toys out during potty time, but we tried to make it relatively boring, so there was no motivation for staying in. We used a timer for toilet-resistant children, and gave multiple pre-sets. And most importantly, it was not optional. If her class isn’t scheduling toilet-time, she may need a personal schedule with a timer. And they may need to have her sit on the toilet until she pees. I have potty trained kids where we sat them down with the ipad or a doll for 5 minutes at a time because we wanted them to evacuate completely in the toilet, which they weren’t doing. See if you can structure her toilet time to be more routine, so that even if she isn’t peeing, she’s going to the toilet. That may make holding it in feel less doable to her, since she has to sit on the toilet regardless.

Third, what’s the reaction to the accidents? It’s a hard needle to thread, but the ideal response is clear that peeing in your pants isn’t really okay without shaming kids. I had a student who refused to use the toilet in a similar way, and when she had accidents, we made her at least help us peel off her wet pants. Often kids don’t like the feeling of wet cloth on their bodies, or of touching pee, and the desire to avoid that sensation again is a powerful motivator. On the flip-side, if any of her teachers are shaming her or making a big deal out of her accidents and having that power struggle with her, that may be fueling the fire. Developmentally, at 3 years old, when and where she pees is one of the few things your daughter can exert control over, and anything your daughter does to show her that her accidents are power may make the situation worse.

She will get over this phase—but I would get the answers to these questions in order to determine whether there’s something the adults in the situation can do to help her. I would also be careful to keep an eye on her urinary health: kids are susceptible to UTI’s the same way adults are, and you don’t want her holding it in to the point that she puts herself at risk for one.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

I recently was reading about schools that have started to integrate social justice into their school curriculum in a more formal way. Do you have any suggestions for how to get this integrated into my children’s high school—they go to school in an enormous district (think one of the biggest in the country), where I feel like it’s just so hard to bring about change.

—Where to Begin?

Dear Where to Begin,

Thank you so much for this question! As you say, this is a big undertaking. I typically find that change happens more effectively from the ground up rather than the top down. Therefore, this work will be most effective when it’s done by teachers and students.

I wonder if there are teachers at your children’s school who are already incorporating social justice into their instruction? For example, there may be English teachers who are assigning novels about social justice or Social Studies teachers with units about civil rights movements. Find these teachers and talk to them! Teachers who are already doing such work could give you insight into what the school needs to make these practices widespread. For example, do departments need funds to purchase texts by diverse authors? Do they need professional development on social justice topics? Or do they need more planning time so they can meet and collaborate on adjusting the curriculum?

Once you have a sense of what is needed, find a way to be supportive. You could assist a teacher in creating a Donors Choose project and then help them advertise to get it funded. You could host a book study with teachers to read and discuss a relevant book (Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain and How to Be an Antiracist are both excellent). Of course, a group of parents is almost always more effective at bringing about change than one parent: join your school’s PTA and advocate for social justice.

Students can play an important role in this work as well. Organizations for student leaders, like the Student Council or Link Crew, can help shape the school culture and can be places where the student body can bring their social justice concerns. Students have important insights and perspectives about schooling that adults need to hear. See if the school has a Black Student Union, a Latino Student Union, or other groups that serve students often marginalized in our education system. Seek out the teachers who sponsor student leadership organizations and get their insights on how student leaders can promote social injustice. If the school does not have a No Place for Hate group, consider starting one with a teacher sponsor.

While I do believe that grassroots change is most effective, teachers and students will be more successful if they have the support of the administration. In my state of Texas, all public schools must have a committee that advises the principal. In my school district, they all have parent representatives and all offer opportunities for public comments. Perhaps your school has something similar, which would give you an opportunity to advocate for the changes you hope to see.

I realize this is a lot! There is no way you can do all of it, but surely you can do one thing. Choose one and start there! I wish you the best of luck—you are doing important work.

— Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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My partner is a middle school teacher known for establishing a rapport with “difficult” students and advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ kids. When he answered a call from a parent one evening, I overheard him talking about his sister. I confronted him about this after he got off the phone, because he does not actually have a sister. He says it helps to establish a bond with his students. Isn’t this weird behavior?